You’ve just powered through your last exhausting rep. Your legs are shaky and your upper body is pumped. Your muscles are ready for one thing: Post-workout nutrition!
Being able to recover quickly is what sets the most successful trainees and athletes apart from those with meager gains and middling success. What you eat after training has the power to maximize protein synthesis, reduce muscle damage, restore energy sources, impact fat burning and calorie expenditure, and clear cortisol. With all these factors on the line, it’s important to get it right. This article will cover the three most important priorities for recovery and give you tips for eating after your workout.
Priority #1: Maximize Protein Synthesis
Protein synthesis is the mechanism that repairs damaged tissue and builds muscle in the body. There are two known ways of stimulating protein synthesis: performing resistance training and consuming protein. Putting these two together makes everything better.
Numerous studies have shown that you should consume a threshold dose of 20 grams of protein in the immediate post-workout period to maximize protein synthesis (3, 6). Larger doses may be beneficial, especially in older populations who do not build muscle as easily (1, 3).
Protein quality is also important. Foods and supplements are classified based on the array and quantity of amino acids they contain and your body’s ability to digest and utilize the protein. As a general rule, animal-based proteins are higher quality and have a greater impact on protein synthesis.
For experienced trainees, athletes, or those who are training multiple times a day, it’s worth opting for a fast-digesting protein supplement in the 30-minute “window” after your workout to get the muscle repair process going. Whey protein , BCAAs (branched chain amino acids), or Free Form Amino Acids are all supplements that are rapidly digested so they hit your muscles fast.
Whole food proteins can also be used for the post-workout period (2). Though they may not be as quickly digested, research shows benefits to eating high-quality proteins because they contain a variety of micronutrients that convey workout recovery benefits in addition to protein synthesis. One approach that works well is to consume a post-workout protein supplement as you leave the gym and then eat a whole meal containing high-quality protein (eggs, beef, pork, poultry, Greek yogurt or milk) within two hours to get the best of both worlds.
Priority #2: Restore Energy Sources
Hard training burns through energy sources that are stored in the muscle: Mainly glycogen from carbohydrates and creatine from creatine phosphate (5, 6). Intramuscular fat is also used for energy, but most people, even lean individuals, have more than enough of that, so it is not a priority for replenishment.
Glycogen and creatine stores need to be restored prior to your next workout to maximize performance. Creatine is the fast acting energy source stored in muscle that powers brief, intense bursts of exercise. Supplementing with 3 to 5 grams a day has been shown to improve training performance.
For people who are training twice a day or doing long, punishing workouts, consuming fast-digesting carbs in the immediate post-workout period will ensure maximal glycogen restoration. Supplementing with simple carbs such as Quadricarb at a dose of 0.5 to 1.2 g/kg of bodyweight in addition to protein is recommended (5, 6). Studies show that pairing carbs with protein in a ratio between 3:1 and 4:1 is more effective for replenishing glycogen stores than taking carbs alone.
For everyone else who is training less frequently or doing lower volume training, supplemental carbs are generally not necessary assuming you eat a mixed diet that includes carbs, whether from fruit, starchy vegetables, or whole grains. Obviously, if you’re on a very low-carb keto diet, you probably won’t be getting sufficient carbs to restore glycogen, which can be fine if this approach is meeting your goals. To maximize training performance, you may want to use carbs strictly around your workout to boost performance once you’ve become “keto-adapted.”
Priority #3: Clear Cortisol
Cortisol is the stress hormone that is released by the adrenal glands. It’s one of your best friends during training, mobilizing energy and dulling pain, but it needs to be rapidly cleared for optimal recovery. When cortisol levels remain unnecessarily high they break down muscle tissue, impair sleep, and increase inflammation and injury risk.
Post-workout nutrition has a powerful effect on cortisol balance, helping to metabolize excess cortisol and ease the body’s stress response (7). For example, including carbs in your post-workout meal will raise insulin, which shuts down cortisol release for a better anabolic response. Certain nutrients also help eliminate cortisol:
Magnesium is known as the anti-stress mineral due to its ability to metabolize cortisol and calm the central nervous system. Leafy greens, fish, meat, and nuts are all magnesium-rich foods to include post-workout.
Vitamin C helps the body metabolize cortisol while also supporting the immune response for a faster recovery from training. Vitamin C-rich foods are citrus fruits and leafy greens.
Taurine is an amino acid that calms the nervous system by raising GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that dulls release of Corticotropin Releasing Hormone, a precursor to cortisol release from the adrenals. Taurine is available in animal products but is easily depleted in vegetarians, making a supplement a good idea if you eat a plant-based diet.
Take Aways: Having an organized routine for post-workout nutrition is a delicious way to set your body on the road to recovery:
In the immediate post-workout period use a fast-digesting whey or amino acid supplement to kickstart protein synthesis. For fast glycogen replenishment, take 0.5 to 1.2 g/kg of a simple carbohydrate supplement with your protein.
Follow up with a high-quality whole foods meal of protein and complex carbs within 2 hours of finishing your workout.
For intense, high-powered training, supplement with 3 to 5 grams of creatine daily.
To balance cortisol, include leafy greens, fish, meat, eggs, dairy, nuts, and citrus fruits in your post-workout meal. Consider supplementing magnesium, vitamin C, and taurine to pad nutrient intake if excess stress is an issue.
- Beelen, M., Burke, L., et al. Nutritional Strategies to Promote Postexercise Recovery. International Journal of Sports Nutrition Exercise Metabolism. 2010. 20(6), 515-532.
- Burd, N., et al. Food-First Approach to Enhance the Regulation of Post-exercise Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Remodeling. Sports Medicine. 2019. 49(Suppl 1): 59-68.
- Campbell, B., Kreider, R., et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2007. 4(80).
- Davison, G., Gleeson, M. The Effect of Two Weeks Vitamin C Supplementation on Immunoendocrine Responses to 2.5 Hours Cycling Exercise in Man. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2006. 97(4), 454-461.
- Jentjens, R., Jeukendrup, A. Determinants of Post-exercise Glycogen Synthesis During Short-Term Recovery. Sports Medicine. 2003. 33(2), 117-44.
- Ivy, J., Goforth, H., et al. Early Postexercise Muscle Glycogen Recovery is Enhanced with a Carbohydrate- Protein Supplement. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2001. 93(4), 1337-1344.
- Stachowicz, M., Lebiedzinska, A. The effect of diet components on the level of cortisol. European Food research and Technology. 2016. 242:2001–2009.